Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor , by Willard Sterne Randall (Morrow, $27.95). "Treason of the blackest dye," a contemporary called it; and indeed Benedict Arnold's secret plot to surrender West Point to the British has descended through the years as the most infamous betrayal of his country by any American. This biography describes in detail the sleazy underside of the Revolution -- the accelerating brutality, shifting political loyalties and total financial chaos. Arnold's perfidy was stunning because he was an American general who had served with distinction at Ticonderoga, Quebec and Saratoga. It's a shock to learn how shabbily Arnold treated Washington, whose nobility of character comes across clearly here. And it's interesting to learn how Arnold's wife, the beautiful Peggy Shippen Arnold, was in the plot up to her eyeballs. The book's climax is breathlessly exciting -- Arnold flees to a British warship in the Hudson after hearing that his secret contact, Maj. John Andre, has been captured by American sentries.

A History of South Africa , by Leonard Thompson (Yale University Press, $29.95). Concentrating on southern Africa's black inhabitants, rather than on its white minority, this work has received universal praise from scholars and activists alike. Perhaps there can be no higher praise than that of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "I did not think it was possible for a white person to write a history of South Africa which a black South African would find to be a fair and accurate account of a beautiful land. Leonard Thompson has disabused me of that notion."

The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989 , by Frederick S. Calhoun (Smithsonian Institution Press, $29.95). The offices of U.S. marshal and deputy marshal were created in the 1st Congress with the enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1789. For more than a century, the U.S. marshals were the only nationwide civilian police power available to the president, Congress and the federal courts. Until recently, they were cushy patronage jobs, which did not mean that in their duties the marshals didn't often confront violence. As this administrative history relates, their duties varied with the political temper of the times: In the 19th century they broke strikes, in World War I they rounded up aliens, in the '20s they pursued gangsters and in the 1960s, perhaps their finest hour, they stared down segregationists at the universities of Alabama and Mississippi. Nowadays they are heavily engaged in the war on drugs, a dirty and dangerous pursuit.

The Netherlands and Nazi Germany , by Louis de Jong (Harvard University Press, $14.50). The pre-eminent Dutch historian of the Second World War, de Jong delivered the Erasmus lectures at Harvard in 1988. Published here, they relate aspects of the Holocaust in the Netherlands, the Dutch resistance and the constitutional position of Queen Wilhelmina and her government-in-exile. De Jong makes the point that "there was not a single stage in the process of systematic persecution carried out by the occupier that was not accompanied by public protests and acts of resistance on the part of non-Jews."

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Volume 5 -- The California Frontier, 1863-1865 , edited by Victoria Post Ranney (Johns Hopkins University Press, $48.50). After Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Law Olmsted is easily one of the most versatile and interesting of Americans. In this volume of his papers, he has completed his design of New York's Central Park and organized the Civil War relief effort, the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Now, age 41, he is off to California the Golden, a place without freeways, smog or, indeed, very many people. He has been asked to take charge of what was then the largest gold-mining operation in America, the vast Mariposa estate. While in California, he finds time to conceive of major landscape projects for the Yosemite Valley, San Francisco's park system, the Mariposa tall tree grove and a campus for the College of California at Berkeley.

The Chinese Secret Service: Kang Sheng and the Shadow Government in Red China , by Roger Faligot and Re'mi Kauffer (Morrow, $24.95). Shades of Sax Rohmer and Fu Man Chu! Here is a biography of Mao Zedong's eminence grise, who founded the Chinese Communist Party's intelligence service, the Tewu, in the 1920s, survived bloody civil and international wars, participated in the violent internal party purges and helped mastermind the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. A survivor, he died in bed of cancer in 1975. The authors are two French journalists.

Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-1921) , by Orlando Figes (Oxford University Press, $72). Why did the Bolsheviks win the civil war that followed the October revolution of 1917? After all, their support was centered mainly in the big cities among members of a working class that numbered only 3 to 4 million people out of a total population of 160 million. In other words, 4 out of 5 Russians were peasants. The author of this important work, a young British historian, was permitted unparalleled access to the Soviet archives. His is the first non-Soviet history of the relationship between the Bolsheviks and the peasants in the critical period of the revolution. Figes concludes that the Bolsheviks prevented a counterrevolution in rural Russia by destroying the power of the landowners, strengthening the middle peasantry, eliminating rural poverty and , encouraging literacy. "Once the famine crisis had been overcome and the economy restored to peaceful conditions, the Russian peasantry enjoyed a period of of unparalled freedom and well-being during the 1920s." This was to end with the massive upheavals and terrors of Stalin's collectivization program.

The Amateur Astronomer , by Patrick Moore (Norton, $35). "Comets are still sometimes confused with meteors, or shooting-stars," writes Patrick Moore, one of the most lucid of scientific popularizers. "There is a close link between the two, since meteors are nothing more nor less than cometary debris; but whereas a shooting-star will dash across the sky and vanish in a second or two, a comet may remain on view for many months . . . " This is a treasury of information and techniques for devotees of backyard telescopes, with ample charts (e.g., names of constituent stars of major constellations) and diagrams. One of the latter shows the tilts of all the planets -- that of Uranus being the greatest, at more than a right angle to what it "should" be (a line perpendicular to the planet's orbit).

A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews , compiled and edited by Arbie Orenstein (Columbia University Press, $49). Anyone interested in Ravel -- composer of "Bolero," "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte," etc. etc. -- should start with this reader: It is the kind of work of scholarship and love that artists dream of receiving, and so seldom do. In some 600 pages Orenstein offers letters to and from Ravel (friends include Colette, Cocteau, Stravinsky), articles and criticism written by the composer, interviews with him, memoirs by his contemporaries, two dozen pages of photographs, and a long series of appendices that includes a discography, a listing of the master's personal record collection and the locations of important Ravel source material. Couple all this with Orenstein's authoritative introduction and notes and the result is a major scholarly resource and a delightful browsing book.

Brisees: Broken Branches , by Michel Leiris; translated from the French by Lydia Davis (North Point, $21.95). Michel Leiris is best known for a vast autobiographical enterprise, laced with painful revelations and marked by an exceptional philosophical density, that remains largely untranslated -- except for the stunning Manhood, which in its English version by Richard Howard became the subject of a celebrated essay by Susan Sontag. This book gathers Leiris's more casual pieces of the last 50 years -- book reviews, talks, articles -- with a focus on the writers and artists that have most interested him: Raymond Roussel, Erik Satie, Mallarme, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Jarry, Giacometti, Aime Cesaire, Michel Butor. Interspersed with these are offbeat reflections on subjects as various as saliva, metaphor, "the use of Catholic chromolithographs by Haitian voodooists" and ethnography (Leiris's professional field).

Lydia and Maynard: The Letters of John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova , edited by Polly Hill and Richard Keynes (Scribners, $24.95). Bloomsbury fans, having finished with the diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf, have lately been able to enjoy the letters of James and Alix Strachey (brother and sister-in-law of Lytton, editors and translators of Freud) and may now turn to this charming, improbable and highly romantic correspondence. The economist Keynes, though basically homosexual, found himself deeply attracted to Lopokova, one of the leading ballerinas of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. Their flirtatious, bantering notes -- written in a rather broken English by Lopokova -- reveal the growth of a mutual passion that culminated in a long and happy marriage. It is delightful to think of super-intellectual Keynes as Maynarochka and impossible to resist Lopokova: "Last night while undressing somehow I upset the cup with the ink, so halph of my body is a study in white and black, it does not come off with water, I went into salt water (the ocean was glorious even with stiff neck), but still I think traces will be noticed for a good while."

Tao Te Ching , by Lao Tzu; translated by Victor H. Mair (Bantam, $19.95). There are apparently dozens of translations of this classic text of Taoism, including a well-received version by Stephen Mitchell. This new edition, however, makes use of the recently discovered Ma-Wang-Tui manuscripts, by far the earliest examples of these enigmatic psalms and sayings. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a rich commentary and annotation to these simple, elusive texts, enabling a Western reader to understand more fully their spiritual and historical dimensions. Some of the advice, though, is surprisingly modern: "Undertake difficult tasks/ by approaching what is easy in them;/ Do great deeds/ by focusing on their minute aspects."

A Shout in the Street: An Excursion into the Modern City , by Peter Jukes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). This unusual, but addictive book combines two genres: a "travel" essay about modern city life similar to Jonathan Raban's classic Soft City, and a commonplace book of quotations focusing on the experience of urban living. Jukes's reflections, derived from theorists like John Berger and Raymond Williams, as well as from writers such as Italo Calvino, focus largely on four cities -- London, New York, Paris and Leningrad -- but his citations range from around the world. Photographs and artwork of shops, street signs, and the like further break up the text, making this an ideal book for reading in bits and snatches while, what else, riding the subway or bus. Some quotations: "The street . . . the only valid field of experience" (Andre Breton); "The motor-car will help solve the congestion of traffic" (A.J. Balfour); "Of these cities will remain what passed through them, the wind!" (Bertolt Brecht).

Authors' Lives: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language , by Park Honan (St. Martin's, 17.95). Best-known for his biographies of Matthew Arnold and Jane Austen, Park Honan proves in this collection that his range is wide, his taste catholic. Here are essays on classic authors (Richardson and Trollope), canonical moderns (Kerouac and Ginsberg), and even a lowbrow (Lord Bulwer Lytton, the author of The Last Days of Pompeii). Bulwer, it may be remembered, is the inspiration of an annual contest for bad prose. In fact, Honan contends, "he could write superbly well." Anyone who has ever chuckled over the formulaic triteness of the writing milord's notorious opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night," will want to read Honan's revisionist piece.

Shaw: Interviews and Recollections , edited by A.M. Gibbs (University of Iowa, $39.95). Pugnacious, effortlessly witty, the grandstanding showman of Fabianism and author of more good plays than anyone this side of Shakespeare and Moliere, Bernard Shaw lived for some 90-odd, very odd, years and nobody who ever met him, ever forgot him. This hefty volume gathers reminiscences by famous contemporaries (Churchill, Yeats), interviews in various periodicals and informed connecting commentary (by editor Gibbs) to make an attractive companion to Michael Holroyd's ongoing three-volume life. Among the accounts are an evening that Shaw spent with Mark Twain and an afternoon tea he enjoyed with Isadora Duncan.